An eleventh-hour application to a prestigious poetry fellowship has paid off for Crown Heights writer and librarian Cyrée Jarelle Johnson.
Johnson — who writes poetry described as “fierce, at times chaotic” by the New York Times — applied for the 2020 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship just hours before the deadline, not thinking he would make finalist, let alone win.
At 31 years old, this was his final chance to enter the age-bracketed competition. But the last-minute decision saw him chosen by the Poetry Foundation as one of five recipients of the 2020 fellowship, along with a $25,800 prize.
It’s one of the largest and most prestigious awards available for outstanding young poets in the United States. The win surprised Johnson, a Black trans poet whose work speaks frankly about racial violence and sexual liberation (and a lot more).
“It’s so much money!” Johnson laughed, in a recent interview with the BK Reader. He said it felt good to have his poetry recognized this way, especially after taking the financial risk of doing an MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University.
“Being a poet is a gamble, I don’t do it for money. Money is great, but people are usually in poetry because they already have money. That’s not me — I’m from a working class background, I work as a librarian.”
Small town roots
Johnson grew up in Piscataway, New Jersey, a farm town where his house was flanked by woods on two sides and the family dog was tied to a tree in the front yard.
The first in his immediate family to graduate college, Johnson now holds three degrees and works at the Pratt Institute as the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Librarian and an assistant professor.
Johnson’s community in Piscataway was tight-knit, family-oriented and church was at the center of his world until he was about 18. He said he learned to distinguish himself in a sometimes stifling environment through being talkative and expressive about himself. “I’m a big mouth.”
Johnson started coming to Brooklyn as a young man, (“to do gay stuff, of course”), and has lived in Crown Heights for the last four years. He said he couldn’t imagine his first book SLINGSHOT, which won a 2020 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry, being written anywhere else.
An artist, not an advocate
The book deals with “Black sexual and gender deviance” as well as the many contradictions the millennial generation holds — from its jadedness after the BLM and Occupy movements, to its eternal optimism and hopefulness, hookup culture, apathy culture, protest culture and the deep conflict between people.
“We’re the Tinder generation and the loneliest generation,” Johnson said. “Everyone is horny and confused and saying we don’t need love, we’re very independent, while swiping 100 people a day. That’s also what SLINGSHOT is.”
While Johnson is vocal about many facets of his identity — as a person with a disability, a person diagnosed with Autism, a person living with systemic lupus, as a trans man, as a fem man, as a Black man — he said he’s not an advocate.
“I’m an artist, and I talk about these things.” While SLINGSHOT may be on LGBTQI+ reading lists, many of its themes, for example having a complicated lover, are universal.
“Yes, I’m multipally marginalized, but someone shouldn’t pick up my work just because of that,” Johnson said.
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